January 23, 2005 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Isaiah 8:23-9:3) Reading II (1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17)
Gospel (St. Matthew 4:12-23)
In the first reading today from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, we hear a very familiar reading because it is the reading that is used every year at the midnight Mass at Christmas, how the people who lived in darkness have seen a great light and upon those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death a light has shone. Of course, we recognize that that is Our Lord Who came to this place to live in Capernaum, a small fishing village right on the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee, which is about twenty miles or so from Nazareth where He grew up. It was the area where He began His preaching, the area that many years prior to that had been settled by the two tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. But in Our Lord going there, we hear something different as well. What exactly does this light do? It is one thing to be able to say that the light has shone upon them, but to what end is the question.
We hear Him calling His first four apostles: Peter and Andrew and James and John. It is very important to be able to recognize what these men did. In each instance, we are told that they immediately left their nets and followed Him. Now imagine if Our Lord were to come to us and simply say to us, Follow Me. Would you be willing to walk away from your job? Granted, there are many people who do not like their jobs very well and perhaps they would be more than happy to walk away, but that is not the point. The point is would you be willing to walk away from your livelihood? The Lord, however, is not asking that of us because the vocation to which He has called us is already the way that we are to follow Him. But the question is, when He calls us, are we immediately willing to leave behind everything that is not of Him? That is a much more difficult thing. Certainly, it would not have been easy for the first apostles, or, for that matter, for Zebedee who lost his two sons from the business as they followed the Lord.
Yet, at the same time, they needed to be formed. They walked away from their worldly livelihood, but what was deeper within them still needed to be worked out. Each one of us, in answering the call of Our Lord to follow Him, have to seek to live our lives not only within the objective context, that is, simply to ask, “What is the vocation to which God is calling me?” but it is also to live it out in a much deeper way, to be able to say that within that vocation each one of us is called to holiness, each one of us is called to be a saint. To follow Christ is not just a generic thing, for instance, to say, “Well, I’m supposed to be married. So as long as I’m married, it doesn’t matter. I can go out to the bars and I can run around and I can look at pornography and I can do whatever I want because I’m married.” Obviously, we know that is not true. So we see it is not just what is in the big picture. But what is subjectively there is what we need to look at because the Lord, as He calls each and every one of us, is calling us to follow Him wholeheartedly, to leave behind everything which is not of Him.
In fact, as it is made very clear in the Gospel reading today, the Lord calls to us to repent and to believe in the Gospel. What the Lord is asking of us is exactly what we are told about the people who dwelt in darkness and in the land of gloom and the shadow of death. We, who live in this culture of death as our Holy Father calls it, are certainly burdened with exactly what is being spoken of in these readings. The yoke that burdens us, the pole upon our shoulder, the rod of the taskmaster, they are the works of Satan, the master of sin. Remember, Our Lord told us that whoever sins becomes a slave to sin. So it is indeed a pole upon our shoulder, the rod of the taskmaster, where we have given ourselves over to things that are not of God.
We need to look very seriously at this because of who we are. As Christian people who are members of Jesus Christ, we are called to the fullness of truth, to unity in Christ. Our Holy Father tells us that the greatest scandal in the world today is the division among Christians, that we all claim to believe in Jesus but we do not agree on much of anything. But even more than the objective discrepancies among Christian people is the interior problem within ourselves. We are members of Jesus Christ but we do not live the life of Christ if we give ourselves over to sin. And so the Lord is asking us to get rid of everything that is not of Him. He is the truth, and He told us that the truth will set us free, which means that if there is something we are accepting and giving ourselves over to that is not of truth we have become a slave, once again, the pole upon the shoulder, the rod of the taskmaster that needs to be broken.
All of us know the areas in our lives where we can see the sins, but we also need to look at where there is division. Saint Paul, writing to the Corinthians, spoke of their division and he asked, Is Christ thus divided? If there is division among Christians, if there is division among Catholics, then we are obviously not united in truth and we are not united in Jesus Christ. But if there is division within our own selves then we have the same problem. Within the Church, there are many people who want to call themselves Catholic but do not want to accept the whole truth. They want to pick and choose, but Jesus is the truth. We cannot segregate part of the truth and say, “That’s not applicable.”
Back a couple of thousand years ago, the apostles even had some problems with some of the areas of truth. Remember the teaching of Our Lord on the Eucharist. They said, “This is difficult. Who can endure it?” His wider body of disciples all walked away from Him, and the apostles had to make a decision. Were they going to accept something that was difficult but true? Or were they going to walk away from Christ? They embraced what was difficult because they knew it was true. Recall too when the apostles had trouble with the teaching of Our Lord on marriage. They even went so far as to ask Him, “How is it possible? Why would anyone want to get married if this is the case?” And the Lord told them, For God all things are possible. Once again, they had to be able to look at that and say, “Do we want to live according to what the background of Judaism is allowing? Or are we going to live according to the teaching of Christ?”
Well, we can certainly take those as examples and expand them out. Look at areas like contraception. This weekend of infamy, we recall the tragedy of abortion. We can look at the Church’s teaching on homosexuality or the Church’s teaching on sexuality in any way, shape, or form. We have lots of people who want to call themselves Catholic but yet do not want to accept the fullness of Christ. They are divided within themselves. They are a living division, a living contradiction. This is exactly what Saint Paul is addressing: Is Christ thus divided? There may be truths that are difficult for some people to accept, but that does not change the fact that they are true. And if we are struggling with some of these areas, no matter what it is as we look at the teaching of the Church, the Lord is asking us to put behind us everything that is not of Him. It may be difficult for some, but that does not change the reality that they are true.
Like the apostles of old, we need to be willing to embrace the truth even if it seems difficult for us. When we embrace that truth, we will find that we have freedom, true freedom. Initially, as we leave behind all of those things that are not of God, there is some trepidation. Initially, there is the difficulty that comes with any form of detachment as we miss the sin somewhat and we wonder if we made a mistake. But it does not take long before we realize that we were truly slaves to the sin and that only in the truth are we free with the true freedom of the children of God. That is precisely what the Lord is asking for us.
We are the people who live in darkness. We are the people who live in the land that is overshadowed by death – 4,000 babies a day and how many old people and infirm we are killing with euthanasia, how many of the little babies that they are trying to conceive in a petri dish that they flush everyday. We have thousands upon thousands of unjust deaths every single day in this country. We live in a country overshadowed by death, and that death has affected each and every one of us, because as we become hardened to such things as the killing of babies, other areas where we violate human dignity just do not seem to be a big deal. But it is all wrong.
If we are truly going to live the life that we profess, that is, if we are truly going to be members and followers of Jesus Christ, we are called by Christ to repent, to leave behind everything that is not of Him and to follow Him immediately. The question for each of us is are we willing to do it? The apostles, when they heard the call of Christ, immediately left behind everything to follow Him. Are we following Him with our whole heart and soul and strength? Or are we following Him half-heartedly with mediocrity? If He is the light that came into the darkness, are we allowing His light to shine in us? When we go out into the world, do people see the light of Christ in us? Or do they hardly even see a dim reflection? We are called to be the light of the world, meaning simply that we are to live the fullness of Christ. We are to bring Him out into the world so that people will see Him in us. The only way that can happen is when we embrace the fullness of Christ, the fullness of truth, when we break the rod of the taskmaster and the pole that is on our shoulders and the yoke that has burdened us – the sins and the lies of Satan – and we live according to the freedom of the children of God, when we repent, when we leave behind everything that is not of Christ and with our whole heart and soul and strength follow Him.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.